Posts Tagged ‘Euthyphro’

God and morality: beyond Euthyphro


I am currently trying to deepen my understanding of the basic nature of morality. My main go-to for this investigation is philosophy. Yes, you can read that as “secular philosophy”, but only in the sense that I’m not presupposing any gods exist or play a part in morality. I’m not ruling them out either.

Many people (now and in times past) have thought that the existence of a god or gods was important to morality, and many people have pushed back on that idea. I’ve had a thought or two on that back-and-forth that I’d like to share.

I’ll start at the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato. It is a response to the claim that morality comes from God, and it has two prongs:

1. Is something moral because God commands it?

If so, then God could command the reverse and that would be moral. This goes against our intuitions. For example, rape is bad, whether God commands it or not. So this prong seems to fail.

2. Then does God command it because it is moral?

If so, then the morality of an act is logically prior to God’s command. God becomes the messenger of morality, but doesn’t really ground it. So this prong undermines God’s role in grounding morality.

That’s it.

In my experience, most atheists see the Euthyphro dilemma as fatal to the religious position that God grounds morality. I lean this way myself.

And, so far as I can tell, most theists disagree. (For samples of their responses, see Wikipedia, Stand To Reason, or CARM.) The best responses I’ve heard are along the lines of this: “Things are not moral because God commands them. Rather, their morality or immorality is derived from God’s very nature.”

I don’t know. On the one hand, this certainly avoids the first prong: morality doesn’t hang simply on God’s commands. But what about the second prong? I feel that one could restate the defense like so: “God’s nature partakes of the moral grounding, and so morality is fundamental to who God is.” So, while not temporally prior, the moral grounding is logically prior to or separate from God.

This response probably has holes in it too – I’ll leave that to more detail-oriented philosophers.

But, regardless of the nature of morality – objective, subjective, external, internal, whatever! – there is one thing an all-knowing God could help us with. They could share that understanding. They could say, “Actually, morality is fundamentally subjective. I’ve shared My top ten in this Holy Book, and I have a special prize for anyone who chooses the same morality as Me. But you know, take it or leave it. It’s not Ultimately better or worse.” Or, They could say, “I ground true morality, and it works like XYZ, and anyone who goes against it is Objectively Wrong.”

In other words, God could be a teacher.

So, while I’m not sure that gods’ existence has any material implication for the nature of morality, it would certainly have implications for our understanding of morality – if any god were inclined to communicate such things.

Based on this, and contrary to things I have thought and perhaps voiced in the past, I’d have to say that it would be nice if an all-knowing, good god existed.

So … why don’t I then look deeper into the morality of the Bible, or the Koran, or the Gita? Same reason as before: all the evidence suggests to me to point that these books came entirely from the minds of humans. And I have found better human expressions of morality elsewhere: more thoughtful, more humble, more true.

What would convince me that this ever-so-handy teacher-god existed, and was behind a particular work of moral philosophy? I don’t know. I suppose the appropriate kind of evidence would depend on the proposed traits of the god. But, as others have said before me, it is unlikely that a finite mind (like mine) could competently identify an infinite anything (which most modern conceptions of God are), so I don’t think there is any rational basis for me asserting to know that some perception of mine corresponds to an infinite being.

On the other hand, someone doesn’t have to be unboundedly good, knowledgeable, or powerful to be a valuable teacher. So even a more limited god might be handy to have around.

Still, I see no evidence even for that more modest, more comprehensible being.

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to carry on doing my best with what I’ve got.